For six years, January 28, 1981 – January 29, 1987, William J. Casey ran President Ronald Reagan’s Central Intelligence Agency with a hard-right political agenda that quickly ran off the cliff into the land of delusional paranoia. An Irish Catholic fundamentalist and business lawyer who helped corporate America skirt New Deal regulations and introduced them to his new innovation, the tax shelter, his tenure led one of the darkest chapters of American espionage in the final quarter of the twentieth century.
With the carnage caused by Elliot Abrams and other neocons from that era returning to the headlines over the past several weeks, it seems worthwhile to show just how absolutely insane the seeds of what became the Iran-Contra scandal actually were and to remember the pivotal role Casey played in that period. Make no mistake, what is praised by the Republican Party-aligned press as “Ronald Reagan winning the Cold War” was actually little more than a pillage and slaughter operation at the behest of American big business interests across the Global South. By the end of Casey’s tenure, the CIA was responsible not only for genocidal campaigns against Indigenous populations across Latin and South America but also the creation of the crack epidemic domestically. This was all simultaneous with the White House ramp-up of the War on the American Poor that has yet to end.
The story begins at the close of the Gerald Ford administration with the creation of a special CIA intelligence analysis project called Team B. Richard Pipes, anticommunist Russian historian of Polish extraction, chaired the group that included Daniel O. Graham, Thomas Wolf, John Vogt, William Van Cleave, Foy D. Kohler, Seymour Weiss, Jasper Welch, Paul Wolfowitz, and Paul Nitze. These were hardline neoconservatives that had opposed Henry Kissinger’s détente policies with the Soviet Union and worked in tandem with the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), an external neocon policy advocacy group, to reverse that course.
“The Team B and CPD efforts to subvert the intelligence community and drive the country to the right were cheered on by a network of newly formed foundations and think tanks funded, in part, by the Scaife family, the Coors family, and William Simon, president of the John M. Olin Foundation. Among the recipients of such largesse were the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Federalist Society, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Institute for Justice, the Hoover Institute, Freedom House, and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. These interests backed a series of right-wing publications, including National Interest/Public Interest, Commentary, and The American Spectator,” write Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone in The Untold History of the United States.
While various military and intelligence agencies, along with experienced journalists on the Kremlin beat, understood that the USSR had entered a period of economic stagnation at the close of the Brezhnev era, meaning that the Soviet military and political threat was diminished substantially (and indeed had been for years), Team B and its powerful patrons were intent on creating the public opinion that the US military instead trailed behind the Russian military capabilities. The most popularized form of this was articulated as an alleged “missile gap” that ended up being the complete polar opposite of reality.
Casey had been a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime predecessor of the CIA, and had served under General W.J. “Wild Bill” Donovan. After the war he entered the private sector as a corporate attorney and lecturer at the NYU School of Law. He became an active player in the Republican Party starting in the Sixties, while William F. Buckley was building his neoconservative movement in New York around his National Review magazine and Firing Line television broadcast, when he lost a 1966 primary bid for New York’s 3rd congressional district, which goes from northwestern Suffolk County, through northern Nassau County, and stopping at Port Washington with a chunk far northeastern Queens at the end.
By 1980, Casey had served as Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission from 1971-1973 under Richard Nixon before becoming Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment during Nixon’s final year. He then became Chairman of the Export-Import Bank of the United States and a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Gerald Ford. After Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, Casey returned to corporate law practice.
But in 1979, when Ronald Reagan announced his second bid for president, it was Casey who was drafted to serve as Campaign Manager. He played an important and vital role by bridging the divide between the moderate and right wings of the party when he convinced George H.W. Bush, who had been Nixon’s Chief Liaison Officer to China and Ford’s CIA Director, to join the ticket as vice president. It was that coalition, which would bring together the business community and a previously-apolitical white supremacist Evangelical Christian movement, that won Reagan the 1980 election and would unleash Casey’s terrorism upon the Global South.
Much of our contemporary news cycle continues to be defined by the legacy of the Reagan White House and Casey’s tenure at CIA. From Kabul to Caracas, Casey’s ghost can be found in zones where American imperialism is sowing violence and bloodshed.